Samuel Williams and His World: Before the War and After the Union

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Freedom and Reconstruction

"Marching On!," <em>Harper's Weekly</em>, Charleston, South Carolina, March 18, 1865, courtesy of Library of Congress.

"Marching On!," Harper's Weekly, Charleston, South Carolina, March 18, 1865, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The Union Army marched into Charleston on February 18, 1865, and many who marched were members of the 21st Regiment Infantry of United States Colored Troops. They enforced the Emancipation Proclamation, and Williams finally obtained his freedom. In his memoir, Williams embraces a then derisive term, “Sherman Cutloose,” with pride to honor the Union general who helped bring about his emancipation.

. . . I shall have to admit that I was a “Sherman Cutloose” (this was a term applied in derision by Some of the Negroes who were free before the war,-- To those who were freed by the war). I am Persuaded however that all the Negroes in the slave belt, And some of the white men too, were “Cutloose” by General Sherman.

Major General Robert Anderson raises American flag over Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, April 14, 1865, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Major General Robert Anderson raises American flag over Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, April 14, 1865, courtesy of Library of Congress.

After the war ended, Williams joined a crowd of freed people to greet Union Major General Anderson when he returned to Charleston to raise the Unites States flag over Fort Sumter.

Still, building a new life was an uncertain venture for freed people after the war. The first thing Williams did, like so many newly freed people, was seek out his family members whom his enslavers had separated him from. In 1861 or 1862, Williams’s mother, Susan, and his younger sisters Louisa and Alice had been sold away from their original enslavers, and therefore away from the rest of their own family, to an unnamed location. Williams wrote that while he and his brother stayed on through the War years with Mr. Dane, who promised never to sell them, he was not able to see his mother and sisters again until the end of the Civil War. It is unclear in the memoir where Williams’s father, Alexander Williams, was during the war years; but one way or another, and likely through great difficulty (although Williams doesn’t discuss it), shortly after the end of the Civil War, the Williams family was finally reunited and living together in one household.

And thus a new era began for the family. From 1868 to 1884, the complete Williams family (mother, father, younger sisters, Williams, and his brother) appears in the city directories and census records as part of a single household on 5 Princess Street. And now that they were together, for the next decade or so, life seems to have improved for the family. As they were no longer considered chattel property, the family members could be recognized with the dignity of a documented civic presence. The Williams parents and their four surviving children formally appear on the 1870 census as a family household of six.

1870 census record of the Williams family, United States Census Bureau, Charleston, South Carolina, 1870, courtesy of FamilySearch.

1870 census record of the Williams family, United States Census Bureau, Charleston, South Carolina, 1870, courtesy of FamilySearch. At 14 years old Samuel Williams appeared in the Charleston census record for the first time. The census record lists him as "at school." He was likely attending either The Avery Normal School or the Morris (later Simonton) School, both for African American children.

&ldquo;The first vote,&rdquo; 1867, wood engraving by Alfred R. Waud, <em>Harper&rsquo;s Weekly</em>, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

“The first vote,” 1867, wood engraving by Alfred R. Waud, Harper’s Weekly, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Williams and all other newly freed people quickly found that freedom was not given over easily by whites. He spends time in his narrative to reflect on the racial inequality codified through the black codes passed immediately after the war by white Southerners, which affected the lives of all black South Carolinians. Though slavery was legally abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, white Southerners utilized these new sets of laws to restrict the social and legal rights of African Americans. Black codes included statements such as, “[s]ervants shall not be absent from the premises without the permission of the master” and “[n]o person of color shall migrate into and reside into this state, unless, within twenty days after his arrival within the same, he shall enter into a bond with two freeholders as sureties.” While newly freed people like Mingo and Dolly no longer needed a slave pass to see each other and were finally allowed to legally marry after the Civil War, black codes in South Carolina still restricted their movement by requiring "the master" (landowner) to give them permission to leave the property. Though they were legally free, white control over black bodies remained part of not only South Carolina law, but state laws across the U.S.

The era of Reconstruction presented tenuous citizenship to newly freed black Americans. The Thirteenth Amendment did indeed end legal slavery in 1865, and in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment did secure black Americans the right to vote. However, neither amendment halted white people's attempts to continue to assert power over newly freed people. Nor did black people stop resisting this control. While many black codes were specifically designed to circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment and stop black people from registering to vote, in 1877, Alexander and Samuel Williams registered. Their names and addresses were written down by the precinct officer, which was then copied into a Charleston election ledger. Both of their names appear in the Charleston election precinct ledger from 1877. It would take many other newly freed people decades or longer to feel safe taking the same step.